The breakup heard 'round the world

In a just too-ironic twist of, well, fate, Amazon broke up with New York - on Valentine’s Day - in a manner that rivals a “post-it” breakup (Gen Z’s and up - think emoji text breakup - oh no he didn’t!). Amazon literally gave Mayor de Blasio less than an hour’s notice of its intent to break its commitment to the city. Naturally, this got our attention here at State of Place. We - along with the rest of the country - had been captivated (and at times mortified) by the unapologetically, Bachelor-style courtship Amazon orchestrated, leading to a year-plus long “battle” between 200+ cities to win over the corporate giant’s heart and economic development promises (seriously, we wrote three posts about the e-harmony for cities-like process and analyzed the winners and offered up an alternative to the “losers”). As drama-filled as the courtship period was, I gotta say I never would’ve predicted that Amazon would pull out of the deal, certainly not in the callous - throw away a “more trouble than she’s worth” lover - way that it did so. But I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Amazon’s move is a tell-tale of the classic narcissistic relationship between cities and corporates have engaged in for years, and only serves to sadly amplify the structurally broken process that is economic development in the U.S.

An Abusive Lover

I suppose it starts off innocently enough. The likes of Amazon announces its desire to find a suitable suitor. As a very eligible, attractive would-be lover, cities clamor at the opportunity to call Amazon their own and they shower him (yes, him, come on now) with incentives, tax deals, heck, their first-born son (or in the case of Governor Cuomo, literally offering up a namesake!) — whatever it takes. So much for playing hard to get! Not surprisingly, Amazon relishes the attention…let’s face it, Amazon (and many other corporates) abuse(s) it. Amazon exploited these cities, but more fundamentally, the company took advantage of the terribly flawed economic development process, in which cities - and states - are convinced they must give (a disproportionate amount) to receive. And more and more, cities are offering these gifts - heck, they are sometimes even sacrificing themselves - to narcissistic, abusive corporations. You think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at the DSM diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder:

  1. Grandiose sense of self-importance

  2. Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, etc.

  3. Believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

  4. Requires excessive admiration 

  5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

  6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

If this doesn’t describe how Amazon treated New York City - especially in its ultimate decision to jilt his lover - then I’m never going to make an analogy ever again (and if you're even a casual reader of this blog, you know that would be like really hard for me!).

Reclaiming my time

But cities, you CAN do better. You ARE better than this. You don’t need these sick, co-dependent relationships. I know, I know, the likes of Amazon bring jobs, an enhanced tax base, prestige. I get it. These promises are enticing. They’re resume boosters. Poll bolsters (or busters if you don’t successfully buy their love). But don’t fret. There’s a better way...I promise…

Traveled a long way to find you…

But hold up. The answer is not eschewing love all together either.  Activists, progressives, community organizers - your voices were loud, clear, important…a true, beautiful, truth to power moment. Your concerns - displacement (no, not gentrification), Amazon’s anti-labor sentiments, lack of transparency - were ALL valid. But...was “get outta town” really the best outcome? I’m not actually sure. Perhaps the relationship had gotten too toxic. Perhaps there was no sense in trying to change this lover. Perhaps you were dealing with a classic narcissistic relationship where the only good option was indeed to get out. We’ll never know now. But surely this should not be emblematic of what future wins should look like...right? Because at the end of the day, was this truly a win - for anyone? What’s the alternative? What’s the backup plan? I mean, I’m all for single girl-power and all, but that part of the analogy actually does not quite translate when it comes to cities. What does the community win besides bragging rights? We must do more. We must do better…This whole “dating game” is in need of an serious overhaul.

This One’s for the Cities!

So how can cities, activists - even corporates - work together to break this sick cycle? Well, how about some good old fashioned “self-love?” How about mayors, governors, economic development nerds, community organizers, local businesses, affordable housing advocates - all get together and commit to a parsimonious (not too simple to be good) solution - making places better for everyone? Seriously, think about it for a second. How much money did New York offer up to Amazon? $3 billion dollars…I get that it was mostly in the form of a tax break, but let’s say we could apportion a similarly sized investment (or heck, even a fraction of that) into enhancing quality of place, which incidentally was (yes, ostensibly) one of Amazon’s dating criterium. If we follow this logical (statistically sound), causal pathway: if we make places better (see here for 24 urban design features to do just that) —> then more people want to live there (and stay there) —> and ergo, your talent pool will be better —> and just like that, the likes of Amazon will be wooing YOU! The secret is, as Richard Florida, succinctly puts it, “Amazon need[ed] New York much more than New York need[ed] Amazon. And I will add that any city that focuses on place-based economic development — investing in better places, focusing on quality of life, loving itself first — will have countless suitors knocking on their doors!

The power of place

And you know what’s even better? Better places - better urban design - unlocks SO much more value than just attracting the would-be Amazons of the world. You already know quality urban design is linked to increased economic value (ahem, our State of Place Index, which quantifies what people love about places based on 290+ urban design features, is tied to increased real estate premiums); you already know better urban design is linked to safety (once again, a one point increase in the State of Place Index reduces the odds of a collision by 12.3% on average); and countless other studies have tied quality of place to improved health, happiness, and even mitigating climate change. All these benefits - or in economic nerd terms, positive externalities - can be captured JUST by making streets that are magnets for people, JUST by making it easy to walk, bike, take transit, or yes, ride your micro-mobility contraption of choice, JUST by exploiting the POWER OF PLACE instead of your city coffers.

But cities, listen up. You gotta stand tough BUT not to the point where you swear off love altogether. You gotta make a commitment to focusing on improving yourselves - as a way to receive healthy love - rather than debasing yourself, all to woo a usually toxic lover (that can leave you for a newer, shinier, more incentivized city at the drop of a hat - or when you refuse to give…even more). So maybe you’re not yet ready to “pact up” (although I honestly think you all should have listened to Richard Florida when he suggested you do just that and collectively refuse to play this noxious dating game)…but at the very least, I ask you to commit to loving yourselves. Commit to investing in better places. Commit to being a confident, well-rounded lover that any corporate would be lucky to have!

I know change is hard, so let’s do it together! Find out how State of Place can help you be your best self! :) TL;DR - State of Place is a quality of place benchmark and predictive analytics software that helps cities and developers make the investment case for better places AND identify urban design changes most likely to help meet citymakers meet their quality of life and economic development goals, while maximizing the bang for the buck!

Mariela AlfonzoComment